Towards a Nietzschean Understanding of Politics: Notes on "The Case of Wagner" (Part 2)

part 1 | part 2 | part 3

In the first part, we went through the Preface of this work very carefully in order to discuss how Nietzsche sets up possible personae for the sake of delivering both an effective teaching and a more difficult teaching.

Now I want to achieve two things: outline the work section by section as quickly as possible, so you get a sense of the whole, and then make some remarks on music, love and politics.

The outline below is not meant to be lingered over. It pretty much reads “Wagner did this, Wagner said that.” I would have written it in bullet notes but for a few major points I wanted to convey.

I. Section-by-section outline

1 (p. 613-614). Wagner is contrasted with Bizet’s Carmen: the latter feels like “the first stage of holiness.” Wagner’s “orchestral tone” is “brutal, artificial, and ‘innocent’ at the same time – thus it speaks all at once to the three senses of the modern soul.”

Bizet’s orchestral tone is endurable, “it approaches lightly, supplely, politely” – we note that “politeness” is is the opposite of “innocent,” not mere “experience.” Also: his music “builds, organizes, finishes” – an echo of Aristotlean dramatic unity. Wagner’s uses an “infinite melody” of sorts. Finally, Bizet’s music “treats the listener as intelligent, as if himself a musician.” Wagner “was… the most impolite genius in the world.”

2 (614-615). Bizet’s work “redeems” – Wagner was called the “redeemer,” it even says so on his tombstone. Bizet’s music is “cheerful” in an African way and this sensibility is a good thing for Europe as a whole.

“Love translated back into nature” is Carmen. Such a love is “fatality, cynical, innocent, cruel.” There is a “deadly hatred of the sexes” within it, it is “war in its means.” This “natural” love is misunderstood by artists, including Wagner.

I have to note here that yes, Bizet is probably being implicated here too. By the end of the essay we will have heard numerous times that the French are decadent, moreso than the Germans. Whether Bizet is an exception is a good question, but that Carmen leads one to holiness while having this “innocent, cruel” conception of love makes me wonder.

3 (615-619). Nietzsche says Bizet’s music improves him, perhaps because it is Mediterraneanized. It leads from “nature” to “cheerfulness” to “virtue.”

Wagner, on the other hand, was a “rattlesnake” who corrupted him wholly once. His central problem, the one animating his work, is “redemption:” “somebody or other always wants to be redeemed in his work.” He drives one to “despair” and “virtue;” “inquiry and questioning” are “excommunicated in his insistence on holiness. Wagner is most certainly no Christian, but is using Christian concepts and sentiments to drive his work.

4 (619-620). The Ring cycle is discussed. Wagner is described as believing in the Revolution “as much as ever a Frenchman believed in it.” His protagonist Siegfried demonstrates this – he believes all misfortune comes from “old contracts,” things like custom and law and morality. Sigfried “declares war against morality” even in being – he is created from adultery and incest. “He overthrows everything traditional, all reverence, all fear. Whatever displeases him he stabs to death.”

Nietzsche says Brunhilde’s “emancipation” is Siegfried’s “main enterprise” – the old deities are overthrown for the “sacrament of free love.” Are you convinced yet that Wagner and modernity go hand-in-hand?

However, this plot did not quite suffice for Wagner, because it was too optimistic. It was perhaps too much of a myth, and needed some philosophical backing, some indication that Wagner was the one telling the story and offering a worldview. So he made everything go to hell in his telling: “everything goes wrong, everything perishes.” A crappy socialist drama with a happy ending turns into a crappy socialist drama with a bad ending.

5 (620-622). Wagner is a sickness. He has afflicted Germany, France and St. Petersburg – the whole of Europe is decadent. “The exhausted are attracted by what is harmful: the vegetarian by vegetables. Sickness itself can be a stimulant to life: only one has to be healthy enough for this stimulant.”

6 (623-625). Nietzsche personifies Wagner’s music, and has it speak to an audience of musicians. This is the center of the essay. It argues that music “saves” and so should never bother with lower goals, like “giving pleasure.”

7 (625-628). The decay Wagner brings about is not a simple degeneration, where life simply dissipates, although Nietzsche plans later to argue that such is ultimately indeed the case. The moralist narrator starts to sound like a scientist from this point on. Wagner is accused at the end of this section of having the decadent virtue of “pity.”

In the middle, Wagner is accused of being a “miniaturist.” The full significance of that idea is in this passage:

What is the sign of every literary decadence? That life no longer dwells in the whole. The word becomes sovereign and leaps out of the sentence, the sentence reaches out and obscures the meaning of the page, the page gains life at the expense of the whole – the whole is no longer a whole. But this is the simile of every style of decadence: every time, the anarchy of atoms, disgregation of the will, “freedom of the individual,” to use moral terms – expanded into a political theory, “equal rights for all.” Life, equal vitality, the vibration and exuberance of life pushed back into the smallest forms; the rest, poor in life.

Wagner has no sense of the whole, but that is not stated directly here. Instead in this section his power over the “smallest” is emphasized over and over.

8 (628-630). Wagner isn’t really a musician; he thows away all the rules of music for dramatic effect purely. He’s an actor. What he does is insinuate things in his stage productions through the smallest details. Everyone is taken in by that sensuousness.

The key to acting – “One is an actor by virtue of being ahead of the rest of mankind in one insight: what is meant to have the effect of truth must not be true.”

9 (630-632). Wagner is no dramatist: his artifice in putting his excellently made smaller parts together is bald. His “mythic content” is nothing but cheap romance novel drama. No one in Wagner’s operas is capable of having children.

10 (632-634). Wagner writes, but why on Earth would a musician need to write literature to accompany his work? “Is it that Wagner’s music is too difficult to understand? Or is he afraid of the opposite, that it might be understood too easily – that one will not find it difficult enough to understand?”

Wagner seduces along Hegelian lines: his “music” is the unfolding of an “idea” (“spirit”), an “idea” that links “infinity” and “meaning” (and, we can safely add, “freedom”).

11 (634-636). There are benefits to Wagner’s productions. Many who were modest before in the production of opera have emerged; new fields of knowledge have even been created. But this new sense of “merit” comes at the expense of “talent.” Wagner is sung only with a ruined voice: the effect is “dramatic.”

Moreover, there is a deeper problem: merit requires “training, automatism, self-denial.” It “coincides in time with the arrival of the Reich.”

12. Nietzsche concludes that yes, actors may be “deserving of admiration,” but that “does not imply that they are any less dangerous.” He lists 3 demands stemming from his “wrath,” “concern,” and “love of art:”

That the theater should not lord it over the arts.
That the actor should not seduce those who are authentic.
That music should not become an art of lying.

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